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On the New York Times, America's center-right nature, and the need to interest the public in the public interest
While nobody seems to want to admit it, much of what shapes public debate is still generated by a handful of media outlets with high prestige and valuable institutional brand names. Memes, video rants, and viral tweets can instigate new conversations, but the bulk of what gets decided inside major institutions is still steered there by the editorial choices of a few publications.
■ This sort of cachet remains important because people doing high-stakes work (including government officials, business executives, and NGO leaders) have scarce free time and have to concentrate the use of that time thoughtfully. It is not irrational to assume that if you're Warren Buffett, then you can expect that a news diet consisting of the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, the New York Times, USA Today, and the Omaha World-Herald (or your comparable local paper) will probably cover most of the news you actually need to know in a day. If it doesn't meet the standards to merit coverage by at least one of those outlets, it's probably below the level of significance to demand immediate attention.
■ In recent years, the Washington Post has invested heavily in displacing USA Today for top-tier prominence in the same class with the New York Times, and it would be hard to argue it hasn't succeeded. Despite tough times for both, the Washington Post has nearly beaten USA Today for the third-place spot in national print circulation, and its website has much greater cachet. Its rise reflects a conscious decision to aspire to greater reach.
■ What's interesting about the landscape is that, at least among those outlets conventionally associated with heritage-status print publications, none are conspicuously both general-interest in nature and center-right in perspective. The Wall Street Journal, with its peculiar online paywall and financial focus, is big but not general-interest in nature.
■ It would seem evident that there exists a void in the market waiting to be filled. Not by fire-breathing right-wing populism or coverage obsessed with politics as blood sport, but with covering mainstream news in a mainstream way, but with editorial assumptions that would align with some of the same features that tend to make the United States basically a center-right country.
■ Imagine, for instance, an outlet with an editorial stance that is Madisonian in outlook -- firmly attached to the understanding that government must be limited in reach and constrained by rules, but also congenitally skeptical of concentrated power in all its forms. One reconciled to the imperfection of the world, and consequently well-adjusted regarding the necessity of tolerating compromises and accepting incremental progress as uncomfortable necessities.
■ Picture an outlet that would be cheerfully optimistic about spontaneous order, both in market relationships and social affairs -- protective of institutions and practices that have survived evolutionary pressures over time, but open-minded about finding better ideas and strongly attached to the perpetual quest for reforms in government and other centers of power.
■ It would be fascinating to see a center-right outlet, run by the principle that news organizations exist in order to interest the public in the public interest. There is quick money to be made in satisfying instinct-driven, emotional urges with tabloid-style coverage.
■ But the long-term well-being of the country (and its states and people) lies in having robust, thoughtful, even cerebral, debates about those matters we need to know about now and those we need to see coming down the road. It would be good for matters if at least some of that coverage and some of those ideas were initiated from a set of staunchly-held editorial principles that differed -- even if only gently -- from the prevailing viewpoints at the current leading institutions. That voice is missing in the USA, today.